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In the Cause of Freer Speech

A UC Irvine professor creates a stir by challenging a speech-training method that's cherished by generations of actors and coaches alike.

December 03, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

"The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain" is not just a catchy old refrain.

Yes, it's the number from "My Fair Lady" in which professor Henry Higgins coaxes the cockney girl Eliza Doolittle to speak like a proper lady. But it also illustrates the dominant method used to teach generations of American actors to speak like, well, proper actors.

Now comes Dudley Knight, a UC Irvine theater professor, to challenge a speech-training tradition that harks back more than 100 years to the man who was the model for Henry Higgins.

Knight's target: the teaching methods of Edith Skinner, the elegant, eccentric, 19-years-dead grand dame of American speech training. Her 1942 text, "Speak With Distinction," remains a standard work for actors seeking help with their diction. A la Henry Higgins, the 400-page volume features page after page of rhyming or like-sounding syllables, words, phrases and sentences to help students drill themselves on correct sounds.

One exercise in the 1989 updated edition reads, puckishly, "The rain in Spain mainly makes me crazy."

Knight's antagonists: speech teachers at some of the leading academies for actors, including the Juilliard School in New York and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, as well as some of the top dialect coaches in Hollywood.

As students of Skinner and keepers of her flame, they think Knight is mainly just a pain.

The controversy, Knight says, "is as much sturm und drang as you get in the normally sedate world of speech and voice training."

Knight's criticism--disputed every inch of the way by his opponents--boils down to this:

Skinner taught a highfalutin, vaguely British mode of speaking that she dubbed "Good American Speech." She taught it as the standard, correct sound for actors to use in playing Shakespeare and other classic texts that do not call for a particular regional accent. Deliberately or not, Knight contends, Skinner teachers operate from principles that are unavoidably elitist. In emphasizing "Good American Speech" as an ideal, or at least as a primary dialect, they hinder students' quest to find their own way of speaking, and perpetuate an ideal of unified sound for actors that is outmoded in today's multicultural artistic world.

Skinner's method, Knight argues in a lightning-rod article published recently in the academic journal Voice & Speech Review, is "mired in a self-serving and archaic notion of Euphony, and in a model of class, ethnic and racial hierarchy that is irrelevant to the acting of classical texts and repellent to the sensibilities of most theater artists."

Instead of training in a single standard dialect, Knight says, actors need to learn every sound found in the world's languages. They should learn them not just by ear--the "rain in Spain" method--but even more by feel, recognizing with their faces, mouths, torso muscles, in fact, with their very bones, what it is to produce those sounds. Master the physicality of sound, acquire a body-memory of the possibilities of speech, and you are ready to jump into whatever accent, whatever mode of talking, may be required.

It isn't hard to find heavy hitters who defend Skinner's teachings. They include such actors as Kelsey Grammer and Kevin Kline, who studied under Skinner at Juilliard, and top Hollywood dialect coaches who, trained by Skinner, can claim a client list that reads like a who's who of filmdom.

Skinner partisans say her legacy is not outdated elitism but enduring high standards. Some of them feel outraged and wounded by what they see as Knight's mischaracterization of their demanding but loving and impassioned teacher. To them, she was a veritable Mrs. Chips; they think Knight's article wrongly casts her as a classroom martinet obsessed with drilling away students' natural speech patterns.

Most of all they say, the proof is in the playing. "Gladiator," "Forrest Gump," "Dead Man Walking," "Schindler's List," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Thelma & Louise," "L.A. Confidential," "JFK"--in all of them, the lead actors learned their accents with coaching from dialect experts trained by Skinner.

Grammer says the method he learned from Skinner comes through in Frasier Crane, the lovably pompous character he has played since 1984 on the television comedies "Cheers" and "Frasier."

Skinner suffered a fatal stroke in 1981 while giving a college seminar. She was 79.

"I loved her and she changed my life," says dialect coach Jessica Drake, one of Skinner's last crop of students.

Collectively, Drake and others whom Skinner taught--including Timothy Monich, the dialect coach who is considered her leading torch-bearer--paint a picture of a magical teacher and personality.

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